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Reporter's Notebook: Impressions of the 117th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Chicago, 2003

This was the convention which may well have been most memorable for what did not happen. Michael Bellesiles did not appear, though he had been expected to until just a week ago. The historians opposed to a war in Iraq did not press the association to take a vote against war. And nothing untoward happened to remind us of the terrifying world in which we now live. The worst news was that Sarah Lawrence had to cancel job interviews Saturday and Sunday because of a snowstorm back east.

But history -- the history profession's recent history -- hung over the convention like a dark cloud. The Bellesiles mess and the Ambrose/Goodwin plagiarism scandals were probably the subject of more conversations than any other topics, with the exception, among young historians, of that perennial favorite: the dearth of jobs for fresh Ph.D.'s. Anecdotal survey: Job candidates suggested there were fewer opportunities this year than last, a sign undoubtedly of the persistence of the education recession, which continues to afflict colleges and universities facing severe budget cutbacks. Only one school seemed to have trouble attracting candidates: Monroe Community College in upstate New York. The chairman of the school's history department, Lewis Lansky, sitting at a lonely table, told HNN that he had an immediate opening for a political historian with an expertise in African-American studies."I'm sitting on a gold mine," he confided. But after four days he did not have a single solid lead.

Sign of the Times: Michael Grossberg revealed that he had to deal with more charges of plagiarism this past year than at any other time in his seven-year career as editor of the American Historical Review. So many charges were filed that he feels compelled to establish a formal procedure for dealing with plagiarism questions. The goal: to facilitate the discussion of such charges "without exposing the Association to libel suits."

Surprisingly, the history that happened here thirty-five years ago almost never came up. Historian Rick Perlstein took delight in reminding people that it was here at the Hilton in the very hotel in which we were now meeting that Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats watched on television the rioting in the streets that doomed his long-shot campaign before it even began. (Two panels dealt with the rise of the conservative movement which succeeded in 1968 in dramatically ushering in a conservative age, both attracting overflow crowds.)

Snap shots: Outgoing AHA President Lynn Hunt delivered her keynote address to the accompaniment of pictures projected on a giant screen behind her, a clear sign of the ways in which the AHA is trying to adapt to a world affected now at least as much by visual imagery as by print. Incoming president James McPherson's arm was in a sling, making him look a bit like one of the wounded soldiers about whom he so often writes. Job seekers found themselves being interviewed in a somewhat dingy basement-like room at the Hilton in an area conspicuously marked with signs indicating clearly that the very place where they were sitting served at other times as the hotel's loading dock. What meaning there was in this no one was sure, but the blue-collar surroundings struck a striking note of contrast to the high expectations the candidates held for securing positions in what is after all the white-collar world of the professoriat. Not to be overlooked was the historian who stood outside the hall where Lynn Hunt gave her talk. He distributed a flier which complained that his termination at Queens College in 1994 had been accompanied by a campaign of such egregiousness as to make it comparable to a Nazi War Crime. Oddly, the flier was addressed to the OAH convention in April 2002.

Irony of the Convention: The only historical organization which showed a flare for entrepenurship was the Radical History Review Editorial Collective, which offered T-shirts for sale. Price: $12. The shirts, featuring a picture of Karl Marx, bore the slogan: "Earn Big Money: Become a Historian." The group, as of Saturday afternoon, had sold fifty shirts in two days, raking in a cool $600.

In the "Things Aren't as Bad as They Seem Department": AHA officials tried to put the best face on rough economic times. Executive director Arnita Jones was delighted to announce that the organization had run a small surplus of $46,000 in 2002; a deficit had been expected. She also noted that the meeting had attracted some 4200 members, about the same as last year, but substantially down from the boom year of 2001, when 5,200 turned out for the Boston meeting.

Quote of the Convention: Columbia University historian Carol Gluck: "All good history is international history." (We hope to persuade Professor Gluck to write an article for HNN elaborating on this idea.)

Most Exciting Concept Advanced at the Convention: Paul Schroeder's thesis that imperial power is deplorable but hegemony is not. Schroeder captured the imagination of the audience with a subtle explanation of the differences between empire and hegemony, providing a hopeful vision of a world in which the United States could operate as "first among equals" in league with other countries rather than simply as a bully. He noted that one of the greatest causes of disorder in history has been the choice of large powers to attempt to build an empire rather than merely obtain hegemony. Lynn Hunt was so excited by his lecture that she ran up to him afterward to implore him to lay out his analysis in an op ed. Schroeder promised HNN he'd consider writing a piece for us. (Plea from the Editor: If you know Mr. Schroeder please encourage him to write for us.)


On Friday night (January 3rd) at 6:30 historians opposed to a war in Iraq assembled in the Crystal Room at the Palmer House hotel. Nearly 100 historians from some forty institutions turned out, among them Van Gosse, Roy Rosenzweig, and David Montgomery. The main argument was whether the group should ask the association to go on record against an Iraq war. Some proposed going to the Business Meeting of the Association scheduled to take place the following day to press for an immediate vote of the people in attendance, though it was conceded the rules apparently did not permit a vote to be held since the issue had not been placed on the agenda in advance. Others doubted the wisdom of such a vote, noting that Business Meetings usually attract only a small number of historians. Wouldn't the general membership be upset to discover that a small group had committed the organization to an official position on a contentious question without advance notice to the association's members? It was recalled that in 1969 the Association had decided not to even vote to condemn the Vietnam War. Finally, the group decided to read a brief statement to the Business Meeting in conjunction with the circulation of a petition. The following day, near the end of the Business Meeting, the statement was read and noted in the minutes. By the end of the annual meeting 667 historians had signed the petition.

Click here to read the statement.


The panel that attracted the most attention--and the largest audience--carried the most controversial title: "Plagiarism: What's So Bad About It Anyway?" William Cronon, head of the AHA Professional Division, which sponsored the panel, observed that plagiarism "is more prevalent than anyone in this audience would believe." He should know. Allegations of plagiarism made to the AHA are investigated by his division. But he declined to go into details.

Alan Brinkley contended that plagiarism is probably no more common today than it was a decade ago, but argued that the commercialization of history is increasing the pressure on popularizers to plagiarize. This prompted a retort from Judge Richard Posner. If commercialism is increasing the pressure on historians to plagiarize, doesn't that mean logically that there's more plagiarism today than before?

Nobody on the panel, which also included journalist James Fallows, editor Donald Lamm and historian Carla Phillips, defended Ambrose and Goodwin. All in fact took a hard line on plagiarism, Phillips arguing that the punishment should be "draconian," Fallows saying that plagiarizers should be fired, Brinkley contending that in the academy no offense should be considered more deplorable, noting that the history profession as a whole suffers every time a single historian is found guilty of plagiarism. Posner, referring to the "celebrity plagiarism of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin," observed that they footnoted their sources, "like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime."

But several speakers drew distinctions. Posner said that historians who do not claim to be original should be held to a less strict standard than those who do. Such historians--you might call them hacks, he said--"help put other people's ideas in circulation." "It is only when originality is prized," he added, "that plagiarism has a pejorative sense." He noted that in the law originality is not highly valued, therefore few care if a judge's decision is written by a clerk and in any case everyone knows that judges often do not write the decisions issued under their own names.

Some in the audience thought that they had detected in Fallows a little softness toward plagiarism. Fallows quickly cleared up the confusion. "Let me make myself clear," he said. "I am against plagiarism." He even went so far as to say he'd flunk any student caught plagiarizing, which some in the audience thought might be going too far. One teacher with more than thirty years experience in the classroom averred that students often had mitigating circumstances which needed to be taken into account.

Each of the speakers made brief presentations, often drawing laughs. Fallows got the most laughs. He recalled that some twenty years ago he had been the victim of plagiarism. He happened to be reading an article in the "Petersburg Daily Bugle or something" when he noticed that "hey, this is familiar. Hey, wait a minute, I wrote this." He realized, he said, that the article ripped off a piece he had done for the Atlantic Monthly about flying in an F-15. The story had an unhappy ending. After calling up the editor to complain Fallows was told that the article had been written by an old guy who had become a drunk and was having trouble writing. The next day the writer was fired. Fallows said he always regretted afterward that the man had been fired. (This expression of sympathy was what led some in the audience to think he had gone soft on plagiarism.)

Fallows insisted that journalists actually take plagiarism more seriously than academics, contrasting what had happened to the drunk with what happened when an academic plagiarized something like 14,000 words in a textbook published by a major house. Again Fallows had been plagiarized--as had some other Atlantic writers--but when he complained neither the university where the professor taught nor the publisher seemed terribly interested in righting the injustice. Eventually the academic moved on to another school and the publisher amended, but did not withdraw, the textbook. Compared with the poor drunk who'd been fired, the professor got off easy and the publishing house didn't seem to care.

Fallows noted that journalists take plagiarism seriously because they take pride in reporting on what they see with their own eyes and in figuring out how to explain what they discover. But he admitted that journalists borrow ideas from each other liberally. "There is," he jokingly noted, "a website called something like 'HonkIfYourStoryHasBeenRippedOffByTheNewYorkTimes.'"

Donald Lamm, who worked for many years at W.W. Norton & Co., recalled that when he was an editor he happened to come across an advance notice for a new book "by a certain president who had left office before the end of his term." The book was titled, "The War Called Peace." You cannot copyright a title but Lamm remembered clearly that the same title had been used a few years earlier by a conservative author with whom Nixon was undoubtedly familiar. So what you had here was "the theft of a title by a president who formerly had declared, 'I am not a crook.'" Lamm complained to the publisher. A short time later Nixon changed the title.

On several occasions the discussion veered toward student plagiarism. William Cronon asked that the subject not be consisdered at this time as the AHA is planning to deal with it at the next convention. Cronon revealed that the AHA is"planning to do a real live example of plagiarism at the session where you will download a paper from the Internet." This should be good.

The session ended shortly after a member of the audience recalled that at Columbia University there was the famous case of a professor who had been caught decades ago plagiarizing whole footnotes and nothing was done about it. The media wouldn't touch the story, he added. Fallows quickly chimed in that he'd be happy to rectify this injustice. A sly smile crossed his face. The audience laughed. But the professor escaped without disclosing the identity of the plagiarizing professor.

Note: HNN was made aware of a story last spring involving a professor at Columbia who years ago had been suspected of plagiarism. We investigated and discovered that Allan Nevins had been accused of stealing material from a young historian whose unpublished article Nevins had read when it was submitted to him by the American Historical Review for peer review. The young historian was Fred Harvey Harrington, who ultimately became the president of the University of Wisconsin. Nevins had supposedly recommended that the article not be published and then subsequently incorporated the material into his own work, a biography of John C. Fremont, which was published under the title, Fremont: Pathmaker of the West (1939). After Nevins's borrowing was discovered the AHR went ahead with the publication of Harrington's article under the title, "Fremont and North Americans" (vol. 44, 1939). Accompanying the article was a brief apology by Nevins promising to give Harrington proper credit in future editions of Nevins's biography of Fremont. Nevins did not confess to plagiarism. Because Harrington is dead and we were unable to locate his papers, which made it impossible to determine exactly what had taken place, we did not choose, in the context of the Ambrose/Goodwin scandal, to highlight the controversy. An HNN intern found a second edition of the Fremont biography by Nevins, which appeared in 1955. There was no reference to Fred Harvey Harrington.